The destination for history

Britain’s final steam trains


Travelling by steam train has to be one of the greatest pleasures of life. The steam locomotive, a vital cog of the nineteenth century industrial revolution, was undoubtedly one of man’s finest achievements.

Monopolising the movement of both passenger and freight traffic throughout the world for over a century it was only advancing technology in the form of electric and diesel powered alternatives that unseated it from its throne. Unlike today’s modern traction, which switches off and closes down upon a minor component failing, it usually got you home – even if itself was ailing! Above all she is a living, breathing machine often having a will of her own but if treated with TLC (tender loving care) would produce all that was demanded of her. If one visits any of the many preserved railways throughout Britain all the associated memories of those years can return. The deafening exhaust echoing off of the cuttings and trees, the atmosphere, the heady nectar of grit, smoke and steam emanating from a living machine tackling a stiff gradient can be truly appreciated by travelling in the leading coach.

The death knell for Britain’s steam locomotives was sown within the 1955 Modernisation and Re-equipment of British Railways plan which, in addition to widespread rationalisation of the network, envisaged their substitution with diesel and electric powered traction units. Throughout the late ’50s and early ’60s numerous classes of diesels (some of which failed to outlive steam!) came off the production lines at a rapid rate. The objective of the 1955 plan, that of making the nationalised British Railways break even, was, by the early ’60s, deemed to have failed and a certain Doctor Beeching was ‘hired’ in – the result being his 1963 Reshaping of British Railways ‘proposals’. If the first plan wasn’t enough to kill off the ‘Iron Horses’ the second certainly did. One by one the regions dispensed with steam; the WR in March ’66, ER in May ’66, ScR in May ’67, SR in July ’67, NER in October ’67 and finally the LMR in August ’68.

All the above led to a vast increase in interest in the railway scene – giving birth to numerous organisations which arranged lengthy countrywide coach tours to the ever-dwindling number of motive power depots that held allocations of steam locomotives. In addition many ran special trains in connection with the numerous railway closures – often utilising ‘last of class’ steam locomotives. Photographic companies benefited enormously with the increased usage by enthusiasts – who were to be seen ‘lemming like’ along the linesides of the routes the steam locomotives could be seen at work over. The publishing industry, which produced many and varied books detailing each individual locomotive classes proportions, strengths and, most importantly, where they could be located, also saw increased sales.

As the months counted down towards the end of steam throughout Britain an ever-increasing number of enthusiasts could be witnessed on the scene. The followers were classless. They came from all walks of life including vicars, MP’s (Robert Adley of Winchester whom became a leading opponent to privatisation) together with persons from many a varied employment. The common denominator was the steam locomotive – which was fast disappearing and, to the enthusiast, locating and witnessing them at work and rest took priority over everything else. They were a disparate collection of like-minded individuals from all parts of the country whose paths regularly crossed whilst in pursuit of their quarry – often during the increasingly frequent ‘last’ occasions. There were three main ‘categories’ of enthusiast. The trainspotter had the ‘easiest’ mode of recording the scene by merely noting down all and every number seen on their travels and, upon returning home, marking them off (usually redlining with a ball-point pen) each individual entry in their Ian Allan books. Then there was the photographer standing in fields or on platforms for hours in all weathers hoping for the ultimate shot. Then, finally, there were the haulage bashers. They had the hardest job of all – catching their prey ‘on the move’. It was the pre-Internet, Twitter and mobile phone age and as such was far more difficult and unpredictable in guaranteeing successful captures. The adrenaline rush and thrill of the chase cannot be replicated today. Knowing rather than hoping that a certain locomotive will put in an appearance somewhat defeats the sense of achievement when pre-planned junkets work out.

Hundred of books have been produced on the activities of the steam locomotive during those years and, as part of Britain’s history, no doubt many more will be …

By Keith Widdowson

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books